Good people do terrible things (further thoughts re: Fred Phelps)

As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil.  The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming.  If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).

Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not.  Most have good intentions – like most people in general.  Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends.  So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.

When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that.  That goes for any major demographic, really.  But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.

On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address.  In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications.  They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to.  Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives.  Most people don’t set out to do evil.  Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.

Fred Phelps hates gay people.  He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do.  Probably most don’t.  Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc..  But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.

When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings.  I’m talking about their implications.  Their practical, real-world effects.

This is how oppression works.  Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction.  And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture.  We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good.  We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.

We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable.  But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one.  It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.

This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand.  Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell.  But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does.  Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people.  This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow.  The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.

And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand.  Being called out is not a comment on who you are.  It’s not a comment on your intentions.  It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did.  We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil.  It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.

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Exploiting LGBT suicides, exhibit A: David Barton

This is a perfect and, in my opinion, not unrepresentative example of how some evangelicals not only don’t care about LGB suicides, but also exploit them to advance an anti-gay agenda. David Barton, an evangelical minister and a “professor” at Glenn Beck’s “university,” cites high rates of suicides and shorter life expectancy as evidence that homosexuality is an “unhealthy lifestyle,” comparable to smoking or eating too much salt or fast food.  He concludes: “Why don’t we [meaning the government] regulate homosexuality?”

LGB suicides don’t warrant even a shred of compassion or concern for Barton; his tone in discussing them is glib, and gloating.  And the obvious implication of his comments is that high suicide rates and shorter life expectancies among LGB people are just what we should expect.  That these are necessary and deserved consequences for being gay, and there’s nothing to be done to address these issues besides “regulating” homosexuality, whatever that means.  Basically, he wants a society where the only options for gay people are either to suffer horribly or just cease to exist altogether – perhaps even to be executed for being gay.  Very Christ-like of him.

Barton has a very well-established record of promoting not only extreme homophobia, but also racism, xenophobia, and historical revisionism (read: completely fabricated bullshit) intended to advance his hateful agenda. He claims, for example, that the three-fifths rule was an anti-slavery measure intended to benefit slaves (!!),  that “slavery was not initially raced-based,” and that “Republicans . . . have led the fights for abolition, emancipation, voting rights, civil rights, and even integration, while Democrats have fostered racism for political gain.”  Right.

Barton also opposes immigration reform on the grounds that, um, God drew the borders of the United States, and allowing open borders requires accusing God of making a mistake.  He’s also been associated with virulently anti-Semitic groups and Holocaust deniers.  And through Barton’s WallBuilders organization, these absurd lies about American history are peddled to countless homeschooling children around the nation, including children at my former church, who are being taught that the Founding Fathers were all Christian, that they never intended any meaningful separation of church and state, that the evangelical church and the country as a whole have never had a problem with racism, and so on.

There’s a common theme here, of course, of using religion as a cover for extreme hatred and bigotry.  Hispanic immigrants?  Jesus doesn’t want them here.  Homosexuals?  Jesus doesn’t want them to get married, have sex, or otherwise be treated like actual human beings.  Civil rights?  Real Christians know the Republicans are the real pro civil rights party.  And on and on.  I don’t think it’s coincidental that Barton defends such varied forms of bigotry.  For him and largely white conservative evangelicals like him, these things are all connected.  Barton and his ilk display a nauseating nostalgia for a time in America’s past when the supremacy of white, Anglo, Protestant Christian patriarchy was unquestioned and even more pervasive than it is today.  They call for “restoring America” to its former virtue and glory – which is code for restoring America to a time when women couldn’t vote or own property, when people could be jailed or institutionalized for being LGBT, when black people, Jews, and non-Christians knew their place,

It can be tempting to just write people like Barton off, but some of these folks have tremendous influence.  Barton has access, through prominent Republican and conservative leaders, to a huge conservative audience.  As the clip above points out, Barton is the former co-chair of the Texas Republican party, and has campaigned for prominent Republican candidates like Sharron Angle and Mark Rubio.  He’s not only an “instructor” at Beck University (try typing that with a straight face), he’s also a major “source” for Beck’s falsehoods about the history and present reality of race relations in the US.

And – as I found out while working on this post – his influence as a pseudohistorian now extends far beyond conservative homeschoolers and the Republican base.  Barton was an “expert” witness in the Texas school board hearings which ultimately led to the conservative majority on the board ordering a state-wide radical revision of history textbooks to reflect a version of American history biased towards white, conservative Christians.  As with Barton, the ideology behind the textbook revisions was extremely pro-capitalist (classist and anti-poor), racist, anti-sex (and presumably anti-LGBT), anti-separation of church and state, etc.

These ideologies are not separate or distinct for many white conservative evangelicals engaged in the “culture wars.”  They’re all part of a vision to “restore” America to what they claim was a simpler, more moral time – but what in reality where many Americans’ rights and liberties were severely restricted, and white patriarchal supremacy was even more institutionalized in our culture and government than it is today.  Barton illustrates how enmeshed a Christian exclusivism characterized by extreme and explicit homophobia, racism, and xenophobia is with the current culture  of the Republican party.